One Last Crossing with Cormac McCarthy: A Review of Cities of the Plain

We got John Grady and Billy Parham back for the last crossing. John Grady was the romantically-inclined teenaged horse whisperer from All the Pretty Horses. Billy Parham was the beleaguered teenaged ranch hand who seems always to be helping people get home—a wolf and his dead brother, Boyd, in The Crossing. Cormac McCarthy brings the two characters together for the final act in his epic Border Trilogy—Cities of the Plain.

The elements that made the first two novels so rich are here. There are the thick descriptions of terrain and those who work within it. There is the romance and deep wisdom of Old Mexico. And there are signs that America is changing in ways that are sapping its soul. One of the final encounters takes place on a concrete batterwall beneath a highway overpass in an Arizona landscape that is all inhuman geometry.

But the trilogy seems to be losing a little steam, too. It comes alive in set pieces as when the cowboys track down a pack of wild dogs in the desert. The epilogue recalls the mythical philosophy of The Crossing. John Grady’s infatuation with a Mexican prostitute and knife fight in the service of that love hints back at the grand romance of All the Pretty Horses. But things are worn and cracking now. Even McCarthy’s Spanish sections are less vibrant and rely on a kind of Anglicized Spanish that rings hollow, especially when it’s being exchanged between Mexican characters.

Maybe it’s just because its 1952 now and America is becoming disenchanted. Mexico, too, for that matter. There are cars on the landscape now and lights in the cities on the plain. You’re grateful to take one more ride with these characters but you miss the days when the journeys went deeper into the land and the people they met had more complexity.

It’s been a great journey. These books are a treasure. You hold this last one like Billy clings to a tin cup on a stob that he finds by a spring beneath a cottonwood tree. “He’d not seen a cup at a spring in years and he held it in both hands as had thousands before him unknown to him yet joined in sacrament.” 

There is life-giving water here. There is a connection with something deep in the land and the peoples who cross it. It’s lament and thirst all at the same time. But as the dedication says, “The story’s told/Turn the page.”

Georgia on his Mind: George Whitefield and the Margins of Empire [from Englewood Review]

Chandler Oak, Savannah, GA

This review originally appeared on the Englewood Review of Books.

Experiments flourish on the margins. It’s why visionaries and mavericks gather in places far from the watchful eye of social convention and official control. Think Donald Judd making his art and his mark in Marfa in ultra-West Texas. Think Brigham Young and the Mormons building Utah. Or think George Whitefield and his Georgia plantation. Wait…what?

George Whitefield has been hard for American religious scholars to classify. The 18th century transatlantic evangelist clearly had a major impact on the Great Awakening, but, as Peter Choi puts it in his new book on Whitefield, he has always been “a sort of third wheel among undisputed leaders of the evangelical awakening.” (233) The two big wheels being Jonathan Edwards and John Wesley. “Edwards was the indisputable intellectual leader of the early evangelicals,” Choi says, “and Wesley the sophisticated organizer who laid the groundwork for worldwide Methodism.” (233) But what did Whitefield do?

He solidified an international Protestant movement, sought to consolidate the gains of the Awakening when the revivals faded, and became an agent and advocate of the burgeoning British Empire, all from the distant beachhead of America’s newest colony. So goes Choi’s argument in George Whitefield: Evangelist for God and Empire.

If we don’t often think of Whitefield settling down as a Southern slaveholder, it’s because Whitefield never settled down. Like his fellow methodist, John Wesley, (Choi only capitalizes ‘methodist’ when it refers specifically to Wesley’s own movement), Whitefield was always traveling, earning his title as the Grand Itinerant. But Choi believes that too much of the scholarship about Whitefield focuses on his early successes during tours to the Americas from 1738-1741. The later years of Whitefield’s career reveal a man who is constantly innovating (and compromising) in order to advance his religious, economic, and imperial interests.

Choi’s organizing principle is, at heart, geographic. Whereas traditional portraits of Whitefield depict him preaching to rapt crowds in New England or walking the streets of Philadelphia with an intrigued Ben Franklin, Choi asserts that Whitefield’s primary interests were Southern.

Georgia in the 1730s was the fresh outgrowth of the Empire, the latest colony to emerge after 50 years of stasis on the colonizing front. The Trustees of the new colony were idealistic and had utopian dreams for Georgia. It would be a place with limited land tenure, favoring small farmers, and no slavery. Neighboring South Carolina was content that there was a buffer now between Spanish Florida and their own enterprise.

Such an environment attracted all kinds of holy experimenters, including John and Charles Wesley who traveled to Georgia in 1735 as Anglican missionaries and priests. Choi attributes Wesley’s disastrous run there (he left in 1738) not only to his romantic failures but primarily to his inability to adapt to living on the margins. Too much a man of the center, Wesley spent the rest of his career traveling and organizing in the British Isles. (I would note, however, that Wesley didn’t entirely neglect the Americas and, in fact, his own innovations allowed for the growth of an American Methodist movement that proved far more lasting than Whitefield’s. Choi neglects this story in bolstering the contrast between the men.)

When Whitefield came in 1738, he saw the possibilities immediately. “America is not so horrid a place as it is represented to be,” he wrote back to a friend. (50) Georgia in particular excited his imagination and he returned to London determined to secure a pastoral charge in Savannah, to get a commission to raise funds for an orphanage, and to get land in Georgia. The Trustees of the colony granted him all three.

George Whitefield

Whitefield turned out to be a spectacular fundraiser but also an independent-minded firebrand who soon began to deviate from the path intended for him by his ecclesial higher-ups. During his time in the imperial center, Whitefield began to develop the theological and organizational novelties that both inspired hearers and riled detractors. Like Wesley, he found the existential and homiletical power of the doctrine of new birth, which emphasized a vibrant individual faith. He also began preaching outdoors and holding all-night love feasts that were fodder for all sorts of salacious rumor. By the time Whitefield returned to America in August 1739 he had reached full flower as an evangelist and was ready to bring all his powers to the revivals that were sweeping the colonies.

But what about that plantation? It’s in the second half of Choi’s book, titled “Entanglements,” that you begin to get into territory not covered in standard treatments of American religious history. Choi presents the Great Awakening, not only as a time of fiery outbreaks of revival, but as a consolidation of a Protestant identity for the expanding empire. Whitefield, in view of his personality and extensive travels, was one of the agents of that movement.

As the fires of revival cooled, Whitefield began to turn his attention to institutions that could further the work of spreading holiness. At the same time, he believed that some of those institutions would also enrich him.

The orphanage in Georgia had been an early philanthropic effort, but it struggled. With Georgia’s ban on slavery, the orphanage turned to some questionable practices to provide needed labor. Orphans themselves became laborers and to provide more of them, Whitefield “went out of his way to corral youth who had no need of assistance.” (150) Choi notes that “on more than one occasion, he appears to have forcibly taken children out of their homes because of the economic service they could render.” (151)

While Whitefield had earlier expressed ambivalence about slavery, he now moved very clearly to being an advocate for introducing the practice into Georgia. As Georgia colonists, attracted by the freedom of this place at the edge of the empire, chafed now against the idealism of the London-based Trustees, Whitefield joined their dissent. And when many of the Malcontents, as they were called, left to pursue economic advantage in other colonies where they could own slaves, Whitefield kept up the fight. “If any one person does indeed deserve blame for the introduction of slavery in Georgia,” Choi notes, “it may actually be George Whitefield.” (145)

Peter Y. Choi

The later Whitefield developed other strategies that seem morally compromised in hindsight. When the Seven Years War (also known as the French and Indian War) erupted in 1756, Whitefield became a propagandist for the British crown and a virulent anti-Catholic. His final project, the failed attempt to establish Bethesda College in Georgia, was not only about educating colonists, but competing for prestige with northern educational institutions.

Still, Choi manages admiration for his subject. “That a transatlantic celebrity poured himself into cultivating the margins of colonial society, bypassing traditional centers of political and cultural power while locating religious creativity and activism outside the institutional church, provides the outlines of the story. At its heart stands a spirit of evangelical improvisation emerging in the context of a growing empire under duress.” (231-2)

If that sounds a little academic, it is. One of the drawbacks of Choi’s book is that it suffers from the excesses of academic writing, not only its aridity but its repetition. There is a great 100 page book here. Unfortunately the book has 236. Nevertheless, this is an important study and Choi has added important heft and nuance to the story of a pivotal figure in the story of America and Britain in the 18th century.

God is in the Crowd (& Goliath is in the Wings): A Review of Tal Keinan’s New Book

IMG_7244When you go to the Holy Land and discuss the current realities of Israelis and Palestinians, you’ll often hear about two biblical characters—David and Goliath.  Palestinians will point out how they have been consigned to two small patches of their former homeland—Gaza and the West Bank, how Israeli settlements and security encroach on these, and how many rights they do not have.  Little David against a great Goliath.

Israelis will point out that their country, the world’s only Jewish democracy, is just a small sliver of land hugging the Mediterranean—only nine miles wide at one point, that it is surrounded by Arab nations that have sought, on multiple occasions, to sweep it into the sea, and that they are the refuge of last resort for the Jewish people. Little David against Goliath.

Tal Keinan’s new book, God is in the Crowd: Twenty-first Century Judaism, doesn’t invoke the biblical story of the boy and the giant, but he wants to issue a clarion call in the face of a new giant threat. The difference is that the threat is not from external foes but from forces within and its not just to Israel but to Judaism itself.

I met Tal Keinan on trips I have led to Israel and Palestine.  Keinan is an Israeli-American entrepreneur who co-founded Clarity Capital, which has offices in New York and Tel Aviv.  He also chairs Koret Israel Economic Development Funds, a nonprofit lender supporting development projects that include Israeli Palestinian businesses. There’s a whole lot more to say about him. He’s a former Israeli Air Force fighter pilot, a social activist, a visionary, and, from what I understand, a pretty good skateboarder.

All of that, (with the possible exception of the skateboarding), comes into play in this compelling book in which Keinan sketches out the crisis of contemporary Judaism and his thought experiment about a possible future.

It’s not that the old David and Goliath story that Israelis tell themselves doesn’t concern Keinan. He has his eyes wide open to the threats and the combat experience to know what they look like. He also has given thought to what an endgame with the Palestinians might look like.  It is isn’t pretty. Surveying the landscape of settlements, Palestinian resistance, and broken dreams of peace, he sees only one avenue for Israelis to take—a withdrawal from the West Bank, if necessary, unilaterally, to allow for the creation of a Palestinian state. 

That the resulting state could look a lot like the chaos of Gaza is a reality Keinan recognizes. He also acknowledges that many Israeli Jews would see the abandonment of historic Judea and Samaria, (the names most Israelis use for the West Bank), as “an egregious injustice.”

“But,” he says, “fairness is not the most compelling objective here. For many Israelis, most I hope, Israel’s survival is the most compelling objective. Israel is not likely to survive if the Jews become a minority. It is not likely to survive as an undemocratic state. This leaves only one option.” (78)

If the Palestinian question does not occupy center stage in this book, it is because Keinan wants to turn the attention to the crisis facing Judaism. The picture he paints is stark. Despite the creation of Israel as a national homeland of the Jewish people, despite the end of generations of exile and the general lack of persecution of Jews in modern Western societies, despite a kind of victory of Zionism, Keinan sees the prospect of “the last generation of Judaism as we know it.” (296)

Keinan’s focus is on Israel and North America which now contain 90% of the world’s Jewish population, a shocking change from just a century ago when Jews had substantial communities across the world in places like Baghdad. In America, notwithstanding periodic atrocities like the recent synagogue shooting in Pittsburgh, Jews have assimilated fully into the culture. Along with this remarkable success have come new questions.

“By my generation,” Keinan says, “we were taking ownership in America for granted…If our Jewishness mattered little to the Gentiles around us, why should it matter to us?” (52)

Jews have made themselves at home here. Keinan grew up in a secular family and attended Exeter, a WASP institution if there ever was one. He has siblings, who like 58% of American Jews, married non-Jews. But something stirred in Keinan to connect him to his Jewish roots—an awareness, forged in his Israeli military service, (well-documented and vividly related here), that there was a value in his Jewish identity.

It was also a recognition that Judaism could die. “In the Spanish Inquisition, the Russian pogroms, or the Holocaust, Jewish extinction would have been the cumulative result of the violent deaths of millions of individual Jews. In America, it will have been the result of love.” (62) 

But only in America. For global Judaism to lose its connection to its identity and to Israel would mean a much more violent end for the Jews of Israel.


Tal Keinan

Keinan’s description of Israel’s realities is rich and extensive. He introduces you to four segments of Israeli society: the Territorialists, who are besotted with a vision of greater Israel that includes the Palestinian territories, the Theocrats, whose restrictive hold on definitions of Judaism ruffle other Jews, the Secularists, who dominate the military and economic sectors, and the Fourth Israel, those who struggle to achieve the Israeli dream, including Israeli Arabs. 

Keinan’s sympathies are clearly with the Secularists, the group to which he belongs. He sees their sacrifices as critical for Israel’s survival and yet they are generally unrecognized. He also knows how tenuous their connection to Israel can be. “Individual Jews, in America and Israel, are beginning to vote with their feet [by abandoning Israel]. The breaking point will arrive without warning.” (295)

Given the urgency of this scenario, Keinan proposes “medicine” drawn from centuries of Jewish tradition…and his own expertise in capital fund management. He sees, in the reformation of the Jewish religion around the Talmud, the development of a kind of crowd wisdom that allowed diverse populations of Jews to survive the Diaspora for 1900 years. He sees a form of that same wisdom in markets, which can be analyzed using a moving average model that reads a running trend rather than random points of data.

In the final section, Keinan delineates a code that might define Jewish identity in the twenty-first century. He builds on three pillars: a technological method to aggregate Jewish thought and provide a picture of the wisdom of the crowd, a new Jewish World Endowment that would invite Jewish families into an educational project that would include summer experiences during high school built around Jewish education and service and free college tuition, and a reformed Israeli presidency that would give a global community of Jews a say in maintaining Israel as the nation-state of the Jews.

If you come to this looking for a theological narrative, you won’t find it here. Keinan’s God in the Crowd is not an entity beyond that crowd wisdom. But his sense of the crisis is real, his analysis strong, and his proposal intriguing, even for someone like me who stands outside the community. It is an exemplar of what I have always appreciated in my visits to Israel—the energy, creativity, and ability to reimagine that makes for a vibrant society. We can only hope that leaders with gifts like Keinan’s will continue to commit to Israel as an idea or his darkest fears will surely materialize.

We could also hope for some leaders like that in America.

How to Get Over the Election – 2018 Edition

We went to the polls. We voted for change or not. We resisted or didn’t. And in the end, we remain divided.

One pundit I heard this morning said that the most profound and confounding divide in America is the rural-urban/suburban split. As a site begun after the 2016 elections and devoted to understanding the heartlands of rural America, I offer the following review of posts to get you up to speed if you’re just now turning to this complex landscape:


To Know the Country Whole


Rural is Plural

What Goes Without Saying: Some Thoughts on Charlottesville

Why Don’t Country People Just Get Out?

What We Talk About When We Talk About Social Justice

You’ve Got the Wrong Enemies

Rural Soul by Sara Porter Keeling


Crossing the Great Divide: An Interview with Arlie Russell Hochschild

Still Kinda in Kansas: Talking Politics with Robert Wuthnow

Book Reviews

The Left Behind: Decline and Rage in Rural America by Robert Wuthnow

Amity and Prosperity: One Family and the Fracturing of America by Eliza Griswold

Strangers in Their Own Land: Anger and Mourning on the American Right by Arlie Russell Hochschild

The View From Flyover Country: Dispatches from The Forgotten America by Sarah Kendzior

Rendezvous with Oblivion: Reports from a Sinking Society by Thomas Frank

The Shame of Rural America: The Heartlands Interview with Robert Wuthnow Concludes, 3 of 3

In the last part of my interview with Princeton sociologist, Robert Wuthnow, we talked about rural churches.  In this segment we pull back the lens and look at shame, among other things…


Photo by Jim Reardan on Unsplash

You say in the book, The Left Behind: Decline and Rage in Rural America, that part of your effort is to explain to other liberal elites that rural America is not crazy; why are we not crazy?

Well, what I have argued and what I found from people I talked to is that there’s a tremendous amount of pragmatic realism in rural America, just as there is elsewhere in suburban and urban America. So, everything is so politicized these days, (I mean how can we not help to say that on today of all days [the day of the Kavanaugh hearings]?), and then that impression of rural America is reinforced, and has been since the 2016 election, by, on the one hand, polls. (We’ve had less than 10% difference in voting in political alignment and make a huge deal out of it and say, “Well, rural America votes this way and urban America votes the other way,” which is only true relatively speaking.)

Then, on the other hand, it’s also reinforced by journalists. The best journalists, the best newspapers, venture out there to Iowa or Mississippi or wherever it might be and talk to people. They give a human dimension to the story, but it’s all about the politics still. So the impression any reader comes away with is that people just spend all their time thinking about politics, which, of course, is not the case for any of us. Sure, politics is important and, since we have campaigns that seem to start as soon as the last election is over, it’s hard not to focus on politics and then it just filters down into divisions within the church.

But on a day-to-day basis, people in rural America are thinking about their jobs, their families, whether their kids are getting a good education or not, whether someone is getting medical care that needs it or not, whether, if they’re in an agricultural area, the crop prices are good or not and what the yields are going to be—all these practical issues.

On top of that, (and this is my argument about moral communities which you captured well in your book review), is the reality that community matters too. People in rural America aren’t just totally self-interested, self-serving narcissists by any means. It matters to them how the community is faring.

So even if they happen to be doing ok individually, if the community’s struggling, if the grocery store that’s been there for years is going out of business, and if the people are having to travel 30 miles to get to work or their job at Walmart or whatever, and then, especially, if the school is closing or the school is doing bad and the kids aren’t able to get as good an education as they want, or the church that has been there for generations and they’ve supported it and their ancestors are buried in the cemetery and all of a sudden the church doesn’t stay open anymore, that bothers people.

That’s not necessarily, in a lot of cases, because of anything going on politically, and it’s usually not something that can be rectified politically, but it does make people angry. And if they feel that politics are making things worse, or politicians are supposed to be doing some things that would help and aren’t, or if they feel that politics is entirely governed by people in  big cities who don’t care about them and understand them, then it’s easy for them to vent political frustration on the politicians that they don’t like.

Right. I think you also captured really well in the book how often that it’s sometimes turned on themselves. You talk about teen pregnancy and saying that, far from being moral wags, a lot of folks will blame themselves for not shielding their children from the culture outside or for not raising them the right way. I don’t think the word comes up too much in the book, but is shame a part of this story, too?

Shame is used, and guilt is, and those are exacerbated by living in a small town where everybody is visible to everybody else, or at least they feel that way. So if it’s their son or daughter who’s gotten into trouble because of sex or alcohol or drugs or whatever they feel that everybody knows and everybody’s talking about it. In larger research we certainly found examples of people who quit going to church because they felt that the church was going to make them feel embarrassed and ashamed and either they quit going to church entirely or they started going to church 50 miles away so they didn’t have to face the family that they thought were critical of them.


Robert Wuthnow

That’s an indication on the one hand of the moral responsibility that people feel. They want their kids to grow up and to be good citizens and, if they’re Christians, to be good Christians, do the right thing, be honest, take care of their families. But they know it’s difficult and sometimes that’s a reason why they want to stay in a small town because they feel the temptations are actually quite a bit less there than would be the case in bigger cities. In other instances they know that there are all of those temptations, especially drugs or pornography or whatever it may be, in small towns, too. That worries them and they sometimes try to shore up their own sense of what is right by then talking about the problems that they see in the wider culture because of the internet and television and all those things.

What About the Methodists?: Robert Wuthnow talks churches, 2 of 3

In the first part of my interview with Princeton’s Robert Wuthnow, one of America’s premier sociologists, we talked about the current face of the Heartland. Wuthnow’s book, The Left Behind: Decline and Rage in Rural America, talks about the changing dynamics of many rural institutions, including churches.  I enlisted him to help me think about churches in small towns and, of course, we ended up talking about Adam Hamilton…

You have the story in the book about the pastor who was discouraged. She said she had given up the family farm in order to pursue ministry and felt she was going to be part of some great awakening but instead felt like she was just keeping her finger in the dike. Obviously, one of the challenges churches face is population decline in these communities, but how do you interpret that kind of frustration? Did you encounter a whole lot of disillusionment as part of your research with churches in particular? 

Well, among the clergy, that example would be illustrative of some of that disillusionment. I would say though that, overall, (and in every single town we tried to talk to at least one clergy person in that town), there’s a lot of pragmatic realism—a real effort, I’d have to say a gospel-based effort, to bring hope to the community and to keep hope as alive as it can be. 

They would talk, not so much about the grand vision that wasn’t being realized, but just the frustrations—that people in the congregation were busy. It was hard, especially in smaller congregations, to get enough people out for a meeting or events, hard to schedule things, just because the complicated schedules that everybody, rural and urban, lives. It was difficult sometimes to cultivate lay leadership because, again, people were busy or people felt that the pastors should be doing all of that and they shouldn’t or because they felt they didn’t have the right kind of education or the right kind of leadership skills that they felt would be important to be an elder or deacon or trustee.

The flip side of that, which I think is really worth emphasizing, too, is that one of the things that small communities have going for them is that people who do have things going well for them in terms of having better jobs and maybe better education or better income, whatever it might be, are very willing, by and large, to pitch in.  The statistics show that that happens much more in small towns, by and large, than it does in cities. 

People feel a responsibility to help out with the church or the hospital board or the library committee or be involved in Rotary, Kiwanis, Masons, or whatever it might be. Again [this happens] because they’re visible and it’s just part of the culture to feel that, in addition to whatever work you may be doing as a teacher or doctor or nurse or whatever it might be, [you should] also be involved in the community. So if the community’s a town of any size, 5,000 and above, 10,000 and above–even better, then that’s going be a real benefit to the community. The pastors we talked to certainly recognized that as one of the resources they can draw on.

Have you been able to quantify that? That, in comparison to an urban area, there’s a larger percentage of people involved in civic and other activities?

In the longer book I wrote, Small Town America, there’s a bunch of stats. There’s a whole chapter on faith in that book and some discussion of leadership and civic engagement. Just broadly speaking, you can divide the US population who have responded to a survey into people living in small rural towns, people who live in suburbs, and people living in cities. Then you can take out the differences in education or whatever it might be and that does come through. 

On some of the measures, it’s not a huge difference in suburbs. Suburbs do pretty well. It kind of depends on what volunteer activity you ask about. Suburbs have more families with small kids than the rural areas do and they’re one of the biggest drivers of voluntary participation—having kids and getting involved in school activities and sports and that kind of thing

In the section on homosexuality, where you’re talking about how that gets talked about or doesn’t get talked about in rural areas, you credit the mainline denominations with provoking the conversation. You said that, in a sense, there were folks who might appreciate the fact that they were being offered this space to have conversations about something that they might not talk about otherwise and yet at the same time they felt the same sort of resentment that they feel about Washington—that it’s requiring them to do something that they really don’t want to do. If one of the long-term trends is the retreat of mainline denominations in rural areas, is there any other institution that is going to pick up the slack? What does that portend for rural communities?

It depends on what part of the country. Being from the Midwest, I have a little bit of a better sense of changes there. I’ve written a book about Kansas. I’ve written a book about Texas so those are the ones that I can point to the best. So, what’s filled the gap, as mainline churches in a lot of areas have declined, have been fundamentalist churches or evangelical churches or Pentecostal churches.

Or cowboy churches in Texas, right?

Yeah. It’s not necessarily a real recent development. It kind of depended on population shifts. For instance, in Kansas this was a shift that started shortly after World War Two, because of the aircraft industry–Boeing being in Wichita. You suddenly had jobs there. So you had a big influx of population from Oklahoma and Arkansas and southern Missouri. You had a lot of Southern Baptists in Kansas that you never had before. You also had a lot of new churches, like Assemblies of God or Pentecostal churches.

Robert Wuthnow

Robert Wuthnow

Historically, Kansas had been overwhelmingly dominated by Methodists and Catholics. Now you had an influx of people who weren’t Methodist and Catholic. So that started changing the local composition of a lot of towns where those new churches were growing.

That’s happening in some other places. The broader trend is that people who used to go to church locally in a town of 5-10,000 are now traveling 30 or 40 miles to a larger town and maybe, if there is one, to a megachurch, or something that’s close to a megachurch. 

Why are they doing that? Well, for good reason. If they have kids and their kids are the only kids in the Sunday school locally, well, sure, they want to go to a larger place where there are some other kids for their kids to hang out. Secondly, it may be that the school has closed and the kids are already going to a consolidated district school some place else and so if there’s church over there then their kids can hang out with kids from school. 

If they’re young adults, especially if they’re single young adults, they’re not going to find anybody to date or to marry at the local church that doesn’t have anybody else their age. They’re going to gravitate away as well.

That is something that certainly doesn’t affect a lot of small towns because they’re just too far away. One Methodist example that I’ve looked at closely and written about some, (again it happens to be in Kansas), is Church of the Resurrection in suburban Kansas City. It is a megachurch and every time I’ve gone there it’s gotten bigger and it’s put up an even bigger building. Even though they’re located in Johnson County, which has about 500,000 people, they draw people you know from maybe 50 miles away from some of the smaller towns. 

That changes the dynamic, which is certainly something which small town pastors worry about a lot. Sometimes you kind of regret it, in the same way people sometimes regret the fact that there’s a Walmart that’s drawing away business. But I do think it’s one of the realities that you have to attract people with young families, single people, some empty-nesters. 

At the same time the megachurch is never going to replace the boutique church that’s just one that people feel really committed to and like it because it is small. They know people. They’ve been there for a long time and they’re comfortable there. Those churches are likely to be around, I think, for quite a long time.

The Heartlands interview with Robert Wuthnow concludes here.

Still Kinda In Kansas: Talking Politics with Robert Wuthnow, Part 1 of 3

Robert Wuthnow is that rare academic who still keeps a foot in the heartlands.  Wuthnow is a respected Professor of Social Sciences at Princeton University but he’s as apt to talk to you about his native Kansas as he is the cultural capitals of DC and New York.

I caught up with Wuthnow a few weeks ago after reading his book, The Left Behind: Decline and Rage in Rural America. He didn’t disappoint…

You say in the book that people in small communities still “believe that the heart of America still beats in small communities.” Does the rest of America still believe that?

No. If you think about the population that lives in big cities and suburbs–no. They think about rural America, if they ever think about it, as part of flyover country. You can easily find columns online or even sometimes in The New York Times or The Washington Post that basically say, “Those areas ought to just depopulate and turn the prairie back to prairie and let the buffalo take over.”

Yeah, David Brooks has said similar things.

I was doing a podcast a couple of weeks ago and the woman who was hosting it only half jokingly said, “Isn’t it true that in 20 years there just aren’t going to be any people in rural America because all the tractors will be driving themselves?” So, yeah, there is that  impression out there.

One of the things that’s spurred me to do this blog is this sense that what the heartlands mean is really different than it used to be. It used to be that, even if people lived in urban areas, they would look to the rural areas as being an inspiration or holding the essence of what it means to be America. I agree; I don’t think that’s the case anymore.

I’d like to ask about your subtitle: Decline and Rage in Rural America. It’s a catchy phrase, but do you think that those are the predominant dynamics that you run into in talking with folks or are there some other more nuanced words that maybe are better?

The sense of decline is pretty widespread, despite the fact that the total number of US citizens living in rural areas is not declining, and has actually increased. It is a relative decline because the suburbs have grown in population or held their own. So there is that sense of relative decline as people talk about population or as they talk about where the jobs are or where their kids have moved to. 

Also there is that sense of a declining cultural influence related to what we were just talking about. You don’t feel that rural America is regarded as the heartland anymore of whatever values they hold dear in terms of small, local community or traditional values. They feel the nation has moved away from all that. So, in that sense, decline is pretty widespread.

My publisher said they wanted a short book that would answer some of the questions that people have about the 2016 election. It’s harder in a smaller book like that, than it was in longer books I wrote out of the same research, to capture the diversity. 

What I always try to do, in interviews and podcasts and so forth, is to emphasize diversity, because there’s the regional diversity, racial and ethnic diversity, and then a huge amount of difference between what’s happening in a town of 5,000 people versus a town of 25,000 people, which is still within the definition of the small town.  But a town of 25,000 people has a lot going for it that a smaller town doesn’t. Then certainly the differences between a town that is out in the boonies about 100 miles from the city versus a town that’s within easy commuting distance of a city. Especially in my book called Small Town America, I try to get into all of those differences and try to point out to people who haven’t thought much about small towns that there’s is a huge amount of diversity. 


Robert Wuthnow

The rage part of it really only pertains to the views towards Washington and toward politics. They’re not going around just seething all the time. They’re not really mad at their neighbors. That not really that mad at urban people either. Occasionally they are because they feel urban people don’t understand them or disparage them. But most rural people have friends and family that live in the city that they’d like to go visit .

They are mad at politics. On the political side, it is true that some of the time there is anger toward gay people or racial or ethnic minorities or toward immigrants or toward Muslims. So some of that conversation that happens all the time on Fox News and is coming out of the Trump administration does filter out and it gives people ways to vent some of their anger on groups that they might not have thought about. They may be perfectly ok with the Muslim family that happens to live in the town or the Hispanic family that is working on their farm but then still they get incensed and say, “We need stronger borders. We need to restrict  immigration.” and all of that. It’s in that sense that the wider political culture gets refracted in interesting ways at the local level.

You’re making me think, as you describe it that way, whether some of that emotion is related to the cognitive dissonance of trying to hold together things that seem so opposed. To put it in the simplest sense, “Immigrants—bad. But my neighbors, who happen to be immigrants, they are excellent and they’re helping our community survive.” Or “Washington neglects us but Washington interferes too much.” You know, just the kind of the things that we’re trying to hold in our heads.

Our interview with Robert Wuthnow continues here.

Read the Heartlands review of The Left Behind by clicking here.

Why You Need to Know What’s Happening on God’s Island


A flooding tide on Tangier

Earl Swift spent the better part of a year on Tangier Island and grew to love the people and the culture of the place.  But when he wrote about the experience for his new book, his takeaway was not subtle.  It’s there in the title.  He believes the island is not long for this world.

I read Swift’s book with the same eyes he does.  On the one hand I see the beauty of a place so small and personal that you can’t talk about it without nicknames and stories.  On the other hand, it is dropping into the Chesapeake Bay, and it may be a bellwether for other places, like my own Eastern Shore, that are facing the same fate.

Chesapeake Requiem: A Year With the Watermen of Vanishing Tangier Island is the culmination of Swift’s decades-long fascination with life on this tump in the middle of America’s greatest bay (sorry, San Francisco).  He’s written about the place before, as in The Tangierman’s Lament and Other Tales of Virginia.  But here he dives deep, giving the reader the sweep of history, the passion of religion, and the romance and trial of making a living from the waters—all the elements that make Tangier such an irreplaceable culture.

Full disclosure: I’m a frequent visitor to Tangier as the United Methodist District Superintendent for this region.  Swain Memorial and its congregants, by some measures, are the largest church on my district. When Swift mentions names, I can picture the faces.  When he talks about the Heistin’ Bridge and the Slab, I know where they are.  He even grants me an appearance on page 246. So I’m not a disinterested reader and in the mix of the more global story of climate change, important though it is, and the particulars of the settlement, my sympathies are always with the folks I know.

They are vividly portrayed here. Mary Stuart Parks down at the Fisherman’s Corner restaurant.  Lonnie Moore and his crab potting operation.  Carol Pruitt Moore and her regular curation of the disappearing Uppards—the marshy, northern outpost of Tangier on which the whole island depends.

None gets more attention than Ooker Eskridge, the town’s mayor and biggest celebrity, thanks to his regular interviews and highly-publicized interaction with Donald Trump in the summer of 2017.  Following a CNN profile of the island in which Ooker and many of the regulars in the “Situation Room” at the old health center professed their love for the president and made a plea for him to come and “Build us a wall!” around Tangier, Ooker got a phone call from Trump and appeared on a climate change panel with Al Gore.

The resulting social media circus turned Eskridge, and the island, into a caricature of themselves, with hateful Twitter posts declaring that their support for a man who denied climate change left them “getting what they ASKED FOR!” “You’re all #Trump supporters and deserve what Nature gives you: submersion,” one tweet on CNN’s account read. (368)

By the time you arrive at this story at the end of the book, Swift has thoroughly insulated you from the online ignorance that labels the islanders so harshly.  He obviously spent many days and hours with Ooker and the other watermen, learning their craft, seeing with their eyes, and sympathizing with their worldview, if not fully embracing it.  The island natives are not naive and Swift embraces their complexity.


Earl Swift

Swift is a great storyteller and his descriptions of working the water are rich, giving you the feel of being there.  He doles out the mysterious life cycle of the Chesapeake blue crab in small segments, allowing you to marvel at the creature instead of being overwhelmed by the detail.  The watermen also come to life in stages as you get to know their idiosyncrasies and firmly held convictions.

But nothing diminishes the dire framework within which these stories are told.  In addition to the title, the sub-headings give away the perspective.  Headings like “And Every Island Fled Away” and “Eyeing the End Times” have scriptural overtones, but Swift takes them literally. Erosion. Climate change.  Whatever you call it, the island is just one big storm away from a fatal inundation.

The recent announcement that the state and Army Corps of Engineers are finally moving toward construction of a jetty to protect the western entrance to the main channel through Tangier is a happy ending to a long struggle chronicled in the book.  But the Corps’ Dan Schulte, who co-authored a paper for Scientific Reports in 2015, says the jetty “doesn’t do anything about the bigger problems.” (259)  Without protecting the Uppards and building up the island in other ways, Swift believes, based on Schulte’s research, “you’ll be able to drive a workboat over most of Tangier by 2063.” (258)

Swift also highlights other vulnerabilities: a declining and aging population, loss of young people to the mainland, a fragile economy, an uncertain stock of crab and oysters, a beloved but threatened K-12 school, and a growing drug problem.  Swift asks Lance Daley, who helps run the family grocery store on the island, whether he worries about the future of his business and the island. “‘Not really,’ he said.  He paused, then changed his mind: ‘Well, I guess we do.’” (230)

That’s the sort of hesitating trust I sense in the people of Tangier.  They are no strangers to loss.  Prayer times regularly recall islanders lost at sea in the past.  Swift vividly describes two of those wrecks that happened in the last thirteen years.

IMG_3692But there’s a sturdy persistence, too—something that is inseparable from the faith in God that is never far from the lips of a Tangier Christian.  It can sometimes border on a fatalism that trusts that “God takes care of things” (and therefore we don’t).  But more often it is a trust that the God, who sent a visionary Methodist lay preacher named Joshua Thomas to the island around 1799 and whose Spirit has brooded over the island in the centuries since, will not fail them now.

I often say, (based on my understanding of the island’s history as chronicled by the great Eastern Shore historian, Kirk Mariner, whose name Swift, regretfully, does not mention outside the notes), that great moments in the spiritual life of the Eastern Shore, from camp meetings to revivals, often begin on Tangier.  Perhaps it takes the sensitivity of a people who live on the margins of the world and in total dependence on the the waters of the Bay to see what God is up to.

Earl Swift believes that Tangier’s story is a part of a bigger story, too, though his is a mournful tale of inevitable loss.  I’ve got a different horizon in mind, but I’m glad he paused, with his obvious skills, to pay attention to this place and the threats to it.  He has produced a great book that deserves to be read far beyond what Mariner called “God’s Island.”

Dreams Nursed in Darkness: Tommy Orange’s There, There

The best way to understand the ending of There, There, Tommy Orange’s new novel, is to remember that the bullets were always coming.  Orange tells you this in the non-fiction prologue to the book where he describes what it’s like to be a Native American today.  The Europeans who ‘settled’ the land “fired their guns into the air in victory and the strays flew out into the nothingness of histories written wrong and meant to be forgotten. Stray bullets and consequences are landing on our unsuspecting bodies even now.” (10)

Later, in an interlude, he reminds you what to look for as the climactic powwow approaches:

“Something about it will make sense. The bullets have been coming for miles. Years. Their sound will break water in our bodies, tear sound itself, rip our lives in half. The tragedy of it all will be unspeakable, the fact we’ve been fighting for decades to be recognized as a present-tense people, modern and relevant, alive, only to die in the grass wearing feathers.” (141)

Yes, I forgot the spoiler alert.  But you don’t need one.  This book is not about the violent ending where the story of the twelve disparate Native American characters comes together.  It’s about the many ways they have lived before they got there.

There, There has been getting a lot of positive press. It’s a first novel by an enrolled member of the Cheyenne and Arapaho Tribes of Oklahoma. It’s acclaimed for its strong writing, realistic characters, and refusal of stereotype.  All true. 

But Tommy Orange didn’t come by his identity easily. Like his characters, he struggled with what it means to be Native American in Oakland, California after centuries of concentrated effort to make that label past-tense.  “Getting us to cities was supposed to be the final, necessary step in our assimilation, absorption, erasure, the completion of a five-hundred-year-old genocidal campaign,” Orange says in the Prologue. “But the city made us new, and we made it ours.” (8)

So 12-year-old Orvil Red Feather, sees a dancer in full regalia on TV and feels something that propels him into learning about his heritage:  

“The dancer moved like gravity meant something different for him…There was so much [Orvil had] missed, hadn’t been given. Hadn’t been told. In that moment, in front of the TV, he knew. He was a part of something. Something you could dance to.” (121)

Meanwhile, the Great Aunt who raised him, suppressing that heritage because of the pain it caused her, Opal Viola Victoria Bear Shield, listens to Otis Redding and Smokey Robinson and feels a different impulse to dance. “That’s what she loves about Motown, the way it asks you to carry sadness and heartbreak but dance while doing so.” (162)

There are alcoholics and revolutionaries here.  Abusers, artists, and criminals.  But they endure by not letting anyone else get the last word on what it means to be Native American.

“Too many of us died to get just a little bit of us here, right now, right in this kitchen,” Opal tells Orvil. “You, me.  Every part of our people that made it is precious.  You’re Indian because you’re Indian because you’re Indian.” (119)

The title of the book comes (in part) from Gertrude Stein’s famous comment about Oakland after discovering that her childhood home was lost to new development such that now “there is no there there.” But Orange’s characters are building something new in the urban landscape. They are no strangers to 3-D printers and drones and the technology that is threatening to turn every place into a soulless, placeless void.  It may be dark, but as one wounded protagonist notes in the aftermath of the powwow, he “isn’t going anywhere.” (290)  He will remain.


Tommy Orange

A quote from Jean Genet begins the fourth section of There, There: “A man must dream a long time in order to act with grandeur, and dreaming is nursed in darkness.” (227) Tommy Orange’s book is such a dream.

Burning from Beginning to End with Scott Cairns

It’s all here.  Beginnings and endings.  Heaven and hell.  Divine intentions and bodily appetites.  That’s what you get with the poet Scott Cairns.  Look for the kitchen sink.  I’m sure it’s in there, too.

Recently I came back for a season to Philokalia: New & Selected Poems, Cairns’ 2002 collection.  It’s as rich and evocative as I remembered.  Nobody captures the sensuality of angels brushing the earth and women brushing their hair like Cairns.  He’s going to linger on the moment, as all good poets do.  After all, “So little to be done, and so much time.” (67)

Let’s start at the creation.  Actually before.  In ‘The Beginning of the World’ Cairns gives us audience with the Lover who hungers for a Beloved prior to anything coming into view:

God’s general availability, His brooding peckishness, an appetite and predilection—even before invention—to invent, to give vent, an all but unsuspected longing for desire followed by the eventual arrival of desire’s deep hum, its thrumming escalation and upward flight into the dome’s aperture, already open and voluble and without warning giving voice. (121)

Then, let’s go to the apocalypse—‘The End of Heaven and the End of Hell’ in a 12-part poem titled ‘Disciplinary Treatises.’  The destination turns out to be the same no matter how you’ve lived.  We lose the “feeble fretwork” of this age and we become ourselves.

And that long record of our choices—your

every choice—is itself the final

body, the eternal dress. And, of course,

there extends before us finally a measure

we can recognize. We see His Face

and see ourselves, and flee. And shame—old

familiar—will sustain that flight unchecked,

or the Ghost, forgotten just now—merest

spark at the center—will flare, bid us turn

and flame unto a last consuming light:

His light, our light, caught at last together

as a single brilliance, extravagant,

compounding awful glories as we burn. (132)


Scott Cairns

Like Jamie Quatro, whose novel Fire Sermon earlier this year mined the quarry of desires, carnal and spiritual, Cairns is not afraid of burning. He knows the impossibility of staying on the surface.  Even when he pretends, as in the poem ‘Taking Off Our Clothes,’ “that there is no such thing/as metaphor,” he fails.  “[T]his could all/be happening in Kansas,” he says, and yet his proposed simple encounter with a lover becomes, despite itself, transcendent.

Cairns has now created a body of work that stands among the best of any Christian poet.  His range is impressive, from the quotidian to the esoteric.  And the depth of his study shows through, sometimes lightly, often with surprising depth.  As when he investigates the Greek word nous, showing why it is more than mind and describes it thus:

Dormant in its roaring cave,

the heart’s intellective appetite grows dim,

unless you find a way to wake it. (26)

And then he goes on to suggest an exercise to do just that.

I spend many mornings with a Scott Cairns poem.  His collection Love’s Immensity: Mystics on the Endless Life, which I reviewed earlier, is a great introduction to the Christian spiritual tradition.  Philokalia is a great introduction to the poet himself.  And so much more.